By Fred Belinsky - Founder and President, VillageHatShop.com
The call came one evening in late 1979. "Hats". "Hats, a hat store", my brother-in-law announced on the other end of the line. "I can't sell hats," I replied. "I'll feel like a barker in a carnival." After all, I was a university instructor, an educator, on the faculty of a major American university. It was certainly beneath my dignity to be a hat merchant. Long story short: 28 years later--and I'm still selling hats. That night, my career destiny was cast. After considering and reaching dead ends with store ideas that included brass furniture, grandfather clocks, knock-down furniture, it was the hat shop idea that stuck. In fact, the research panned out. Granted, some hat mavens told me that no one would ever be successful selling hats in southern California where "people just don't wear hats." But in fact, after 20 years of a major slump in the hat industry (since John Kennedy took off his hat at his inauguration), hats were selling well nationally in 1979 and 80. Specifically western hats were hot. The TV show "Dallas" and the John Travolta movie, "Urban Cowboy" were driving western wear, cowboy hats included. Bars in cities like New York and Chicago were featuring mechanical bucking bulls and city slickers were dancing the Texas two-step. The deal was sealed when one industry insider told me that my biggest problem would be getting enough inventory because the manufacturers just couldn't make cowboy hats fast enough. Being the son of a merchant, growing up immersed in retail, I knew without thinking about t it twice, that that was a problem I wanted to have.
The store opened May 2, 1980. My golden retriever Nicholas and I drove cross-country from our Michigan home in our family car, a Mazda GLC (Great Little Car - really!) a few months earlier and oversaw the build-out of the space, slightly over 1000 square feet. My wife Tina and our 3-month-old son followed a month or two after Nick and I. So, here we were, hat merchants in San Diego. The career conversion was complete. My concern: Could I sell enough hats to pay the shop rent, my home rent, my business invoices, the salaries for two employees, diapers for my kid, food for my family, gas for my car. For opening this store, my half (the aforementioned brother-in-law and his wife, my sister, were my silent half partners) put me "all in". Needless to say, I worked like a madman in those early days.
Cowboy hats did, in fact, keep me going in those first months, but then it happened. It's legendary in the hat industry. One day in April 1981, people stopped buying western style hats. It was as if an announcement came down from the heavens, "YE SHALL NOT BUY A COWBOY HAT." Well, that was fine as far as I was concerned. After all, I was never much into fads of the day anyway, except for one thing, my livelihood depended on this fad. The good news was that my location, Seaport Village, was a winner. The bad news was that the decor of the shop, the hand-carved cowboy hat signs, the business cards and letterhead, the fixtures, the inventory, all that I knew about hats, was built around a single style that was no longer selling.
It was time to learn the hat business. I regularly rode the train up to the Los Angeles Mart and walked the many floors in both buildings. I flew to trade shows in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. I walked the streets in Manhattan's millinery district, peeking into places where outsiders were feared as spies, there to steal ideas for the next season. I of course was simply trying to take in as much as I could. I was learning the difference between a toque and a cloche, a tick weave and a Harris Tweed. In time, I changed the store decor, the signs, the logo, the business cards and letterhead, but most importantly I changed the inventory. What was at one time a store filled with umpteen variations on a single theme, was now a real hat store. Hats for men and women and children, in felt and straw and leather. Hats cut-and-sewn from woolen and cotton and polyester fabrics. Bowlers, top hats, fedoras, ivy and eight-quarter caps, baseball caps, pith helmets, berets--you name it, we sold it. The millinery (women's side) business too: pinwheels, cocktail hats, sun hats, gaucho hats, Bretons, swingers, boaters, and the like. Novelty hats were promoted to a place of honor in this hat store. This was a new development in a retail industry where most of the men's trade took place in the older, downtown shopping districts where customers were not allowed to get close to the merchandise without the assistance of a clerk. The millinery side was limping along in some department stores. The idea that a cheesehead hat or a ball cap with clapping hands on top of it could be merchandised next to a serious felt fedora or a Panama was new (and a headwear sacrilege to some). But my idea, after the shock of the western style demise, was to sell it all, spread the category as wide as possible. My specialty was to be hats, and by that I meant anything that went on one's head. It worked. People came into the store and felt free to try anything on, with or without the assistance of a sales person. They had fun. "Humphrey Bogart" and "Mae West" were in the store every day. I sold a lot of hats.
The business, and my life, settled down from there. After a number of years happily plugging along in a single store, I began to expand a bit. Always in pursuit of "harmony and not quantity", " I consulted in the opening of hat stores on both coasts. We opened a second location in Horton Plaza, a 15 minute walk from Seaport Village. I tried to franchise an operation in Florida (a bust). Not so incidentally, I bought out my sister and brother-in-law's half interest at an agreed price. All along, of course, I was learning more about hats. Tina and I traveled to China in 1991 where much of the manufacturing was being moved. I went to Korea a year or so later and arranged for the manufacturing of a private label line of straw hats. I was now a direct importer. We traveled to Ecuador, home of the legendary Panama hat. Ironically, it was not Panama hats that we cultivated on that trip, but rather crushable wool felt hats for men. As luck (the residue of design) would have it, I opened the Quito yellow pages and found a 4th generation family hat manufacturing business where the young gun, fresh from a master's degree in business, was looking to expand the company's markets to North America. We rented a warehouse in an old historical building in San Diego (interestingly enough, this building known as The Candy Factory was one of two buildings
spared the wrecking ball in the building of San Diego's new major league ball field, Petco Park) to house imports now coming from two continents. I hired experienced milliners and used this space also as a millinery studio where we made custom hats for San Diego's thriving local theaters, for brides and bride's maids. We made custom hats for any occasion and also cut the patterns and helped entrepreneurs with their headwear ideas and inventions. We learned more about hats.
By 1997 we had four stores (two in San Diego, and one each in Sacramento and Long Beach) and Bel-Born Hat, Cap & Millinery (Bel-Born is our corporate name, the first syllables of Tina's and my last names), housed in The Candy Factory building. Significantly, my nephew Bruce was now part of the team. He oversaw the opening of our stores in Sacramento and Long Beach and was planning a move to San Diego, primarily to manage the first shop in Seaport Village (which was in need of good leadership at the time), but also, in the back of our minds, to be closer to headquarters because our first feelers in something called The World Wide Web were quite intriguing. Although our first experiment was the creation of a single web page selling a single hat, the
Greek Fisherman's Cap, we surprisingly sold a few. What is going on here? Furthermore, we could actually extract data such as how many people visited our page in a month. Hummm. We were learning----and thinking. A search in the very rudimentary search engines back then turned up a few responses for the keyword "hats." We were one of them. Hmmm. About the same time this was going on, we were in search of a new headquarters. Bel-Born Hat, Cap & Millinery was about to be evicted, as were all businesses in San Diego's East Village---the new ballpark was coming. We bought a building, with a retail storefront, on 4th Avenue in the Hillcrest district of San Diego. The good news was that we, for the first time, were our own landlords. No more being beaten up by the big multi-national corporations-at least in one location. The bad news was this location didn't have much foot traffic nor adequate parking (something those evil big developers brought). How were we going to justify this rent, this mortgage payment? We were merchants by instinct. We opened stores to make them work. We needed to figure ways to generate sales. Maybe that funny stuff going on in the World Wide Web (increasingly now being called the Internet) could be expanded.
From the get-go we felt that this new sales channel fit our skills and interests rather well. Albeit we didn't know much about technology, I did like to write, I had always been an amateur photographer (with an early interest in digital photography), and Tina (now coming back to work with our two sons grown up) had a PhD in management and had the organizational skills necessary for such an expansion. Furthermore, this internet lent itself to rather straightforward analysis. I've never been afraid of math and being able to determine how many visitors came to one's site, how many pages they opened when there, how much time they spent while visiting, how many dollars were spent on average, per visit, per page view, etc. made marketing much less of a crap shoot. Crunching all these numbers was fun in fact. Marketing (an area about to take on a sea change in our business) became much more science and much less wishful thinking.
Well, what became of all this can be seen, up to the minute, at VillageHatShop.com. The story now changes very fast. We have new competitors, what seems like, every day. A search using the keyword "hats" turns up thousands, tens of thousands, of responses. We sell over 1,000 different styles at VillageHatShop.com (not counting color or size). We stock over 120,000 hats at our four locations and 2 warehouses. This breadth of selection, an early core value, is not the only thing that distinguishes us from the pack. One important difference is that we are for real. You know this when you "come to our store". You may not even be conscious of why you feel this way when you enter our site, but upon closer examination, you'll note that there are no banner ads, no pop-up windows, in fact, there aren't even links to other sites of any kind. You purchase without the use of a user name or password. You receive an email from us only if you have opted-in to be on this list. But perhaps most importantly, when you email us with a question or when you receive an email after placing an order, you hear from (immediately to one day at the most) either Tina, Bruce, myself, or from a couple other key employees who have been inculcated into our merchant culture. When I mentioned that this new sales channel fit our skills and interests, I left off that list the single issue that excited us the most. The real promise of e-commerce was and still should be the fact that customers and merchants can really be in touch with each other. One can have a big "store", but yet maintain old values when small town merchants were minding the store when customers came by and they answered their questions, responded to their needs, ordered special requests. In the end, what distinguishes VillageHatShop.com from the vast majority of on-line hat sellers is that we are here when you come knocking. We are for real. We know our products and we know the fundamentals of being good merchants (thanks to my father).
I hope this web site expands your knowledge of headwear. Hats, scholars believe, were the very first apparel items that humans wore. They served as protection from the elements, animals, or other humans. They adorned heads in order to attract mates, distinguish rank, intimidate, and, I assume, to get a laugh. I hope that as you peruse VillageHatShop.com, your appreciation for this venerable apparel item will increase. I am not a barker in a carnival.